Can City Clubs Survive Today’s Post-COVID-19 Threat?

Certainly ... if they broaden their missions and locations!

Published Thursday, September 17, 2020
by William McMahon, Sr., AIA, OAA

The pandemic has shaken the club world, but city clubs have felt the brunt of it. Cities once valued for their synergy and active lifestyles with the ability to bring

people together in positive ways are now the very places people are scrambling to leave. Back in vogue are healthy, open spaces, suburban lifestyle, golf and outside recreation including walking, running and bicycling. The new population trends for workplaces and living places in cities indicate that city clubs will be facing a lack of people living or working in/or near them. In fact, just going into some cities have an element of challenge in it.

While this situation is not good for some city clubs, it is not hopeless. We have been through similar circumstances before. Thirty or 40 years ago, many cities were in serious decline as the exodus to the suburbs took place. Back then, what did the city clubs do to address this problem? They developed suburban locations by acquiring or merging with suburban private or commercial clubs to broaden their appeal to more than downtown business members. The city clubs that added suburban locations and refocused their strategic mission look smart today. But, it is important to remember that these added locations were driven out of necessity; survival was at stake for dying cities and the clubs serving them. In retrospect, the real underlining reason for the renewed success of these city clubs was having more convenient locations and embracing the family with club-like facilities with or without golf. The urban family club remains in demand, and the city clubs that tapped this family market while still retaining their existing downtown locations can offer the best of both worlds.

Somewhat recently, American cities rebounded as energy scares and recessions encouraged people to move back into cities. City living came back in vogue especially for young adults and empty nesters. With COVID-19, here we go again with cities emptying once more. Those city clubs that kept all their eggs in one downtown basket had better follow their more progressive club brethren in adding branches or associating with other suburban clubs to serve an ever-shifting membership base. For the last 100 years, the love-hate attitudes for city living and working has been going on, and city clubs must be able to serve both urban and suburban—and even national marketplaces—if they are to be diversified enough to prosper.

For the immediate future, city clubs will feel the economic pain of the city exodus. This time these departures could be even more damaging to clubs as businesses are learning there might be real advantages to virtual workplaces away from the crowded city. Office space in cities could be viewed as an expensive luxury compared to home offices or even suburban offices.

Housing in cities is also more expensive compared to suburbia. The new work, play and living environment for people and their families in the safest places is not in a densely populated city. Virus spreading and urban unrest is more and more prevalent in cities, and this is not expected to decline as continued virus waves occur and the country becomes more politically divided.

Dual club facilities in both urban and suburban locations offer the best opportunity for city club success. However, the satellite club strategy will not work for all city clubs. Each club has to develop its own way forward and must have an innovative strategic plan with customized solutions that will fit each club’s membership needs.

THE UNION LEAGUE’S SUCCESS FORMULA
The city club success story for the satellite club strategy is best illustrated by The Union League of Philadelphia under General Manager Jeffrey McFadden, CCM, CCE, ECM. The Union League has upgraded its historic downtown Philadelphia flagship clubhouse and acquired and operates two full-service suburban country clubs, a Chesapeake Bay dining club and a suburban Philadelphia restaurant for its members. This did not happen overnight as the League had a plan and executed it.

Yet, The Union League’s success is not a lone story of clubs expanding their geographic footprint. There is another very interesting and educational story to be told about how some city clubs in St. Louis, Mo., were visionary and succeeded while other city clubs failed.

THE ST. LOUIS, MO., CITY CLUB STORY
(as told by club consultants and actual members who were there)

Just so you know, St. Louis is a club city. It has lots of clubs for a 2.5 million population in a city that offers boating on the Mississippi, St. Louis Cardinal games and Blues Hockey for fun. Clubs are its lifeblood and a story about its many city clubs is revealing. During the past 30 years, St. Louis has seen the demise of many city clubs as the business community shrank from more than 20 Fortune 500 headquarters to only three today. While this shrinkage did not greatly affect country clubs, it was devastating to the city’s business clubs. Gone are the Noonday Club, Media Club, Clayton Club, University Club, Stadium Club and miscellaneous bank clubs. Today only the Saint Louis Club, the Racquet Club and the Missouri Athletic Club exist as true city clubs. It is interesting to see why these three clubs survived and five other city clubs failed: It was all about the three surviving clubs diversifying from a singular business focus to expanding their footprints to the suburbs, becoming more family focused while still maintaining their traditional offerings, but in innovative ways.

THE THREE ST. LOUIS SURVIVORS

The Racquet Club Story

The Racquet Club was founded in 1906 as a breakaway club for young men who revolted from a long gone, stuffy club. Its motto was and still is “youth will be served,” but like all clubs more than 100 years old, it too had to continually change. In the 1970s, this all-male, business and squash club, offset by three all-female clubs in the city (and not located in the best part of the city), was headed for failure. The club found a suburban second location in the prosperous St. Louis suburb, Ladue. Adding the suburban location in 1980 changed the outlook as family members could use the new facility and existing club members could continue to use and play squash at the mid-town, original clubhouse. Today, the association of these two facilities as one club is no longer in place, but the joining of the two clubs saved both the Racquet Club and the original Bath & Tennis Club. It wasn’t easy to pull off, but it worked. The Racquet Club is now the granddaddy of St. Louis city clubs.

The Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) Story

The MAC, as it is locally known, was founded in 1903 as a classic business/recreation/dining/hotel/athletic club in the once thriving city of St. Louis. Its origins tie to the 1904 Olympic games that were held in St. Louis and included several Olympic athletes as members. However, as the booming city began to decline and businesses began moving to suburbs, this grand old club began to lose its cache, its members and its way forward. Fortunately, in the 1990s an innovative manager, president and board did the impossible. They led the MAC out of its decline by orchestrating the purchase of a popular commercial tennis and swimming club located where 70% of MAC members lived. They added the family dimension to the declining city club. These wise leaders not only bought the Town and Country Racquet Club facility, but they picked up more than 1,000 new members in doing so. The addition of the suburban family location saved the Missouri Athletic Club.

The Saint Louis Club Story

The Saint Louis Club is a relative newcomer, formed in 1964 and located atop a prestigious new office building in the suburban city of Clayton. It was a power broker, the most civic and progressive club in St. Louis located outside the declining downtown area. But as successful as the club was from its founding, times were changing and St. Louis’ status as a corporate headquarters city was diminishing. The club was fortunately in the fastest growing St. Louis suburb, but its business club focus was outdated. So what did the club’s leadership do? The club branched out to offer broader, nonbusiness access to the best hospital-based wellness club in the city. It reciprocally associated with a fine, but distant, suburban, 36-hole country club for its members, and it renovated its already attractive facility offerings into much more casual dining, bar and social areas. The club had (and still has) an excellent reputation for dining, and its good location, access to the suburban clubs and outstanding upscale and casual facilities have continued to keep the Saint Louis Club the place to be for business and social use.

THE UNIVERSITY CLUB DEMISE STORY

This should have been the ultimate club success story in St. Louis. This 1872 club—one of the oldest university clubs in the nation—was first saved in 1975 when it moved from the dangerous part of the city to a good, mid-town location atop a high-rise office building. It had booming membership growth. By 2000, however, the overall decline of corporate St. Louis began to take its toll. Several club merger and relocation options were studied, but the club’s leadership lacked the vision for doing what its sister clubs (Racquet, MAC and Saint Louis) did. The University Club had the opportunity to associate with a 150,000-square-foot commercial suburban club, but its leadership turned down the alliance. Thus, today there is no University Club in St. Louis. More than anything, the University Club story shows the value of having visionary leaders when major events, like the COVID-19 pandemic, challenge a club. There is a time to act, but it takes visionary leaders to do it.

HOW CITY CLUBS SURVIVE AND PROSPER

If a club today is already successful and the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed its strategy for success, then double down on the existing important things to members while taking advantage of new opportunities needed for attracting a broader membership base.

If a city club today is operating a single location facility in an urban core, it is time (quite frankly, past time) to study and develop associations or to acquire/lease other private or commercial sports/recreation clubs in good suburbs. However, it is critical to make sure the new locations serve where many existing members live and soon will be working.

To save and rebuild a struggling city club, remember the most important ingredients for success. First, have a visionary, quality manager who can deliver high member satisfaction. Second, find the most dedicated and visionary members to lead the club to new heights. Finally, develop and follow a strategic plan for the future so the club can change with the times and continue to attract members. City clubs with expanded offerings for work, recreation, play and socializing are in demand. It is up to each club to determine how to do this in its own location.

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